New Orleans on a Budget
This post is a travel guide for visiting New Orleans on a budget. As a city famous for tourism, New Orleans can seem to require a lot of cash. But a closer look at the French Quarter, and especially a look at neighborhoods beyond the French Quarter, can reveal lots of affordable or free options. Here are some insider tips for how to make the most of your time in the amazing city of New Orleans on a budget.
Plantation And Swamp Tours
If you’re thinking about getting out of the city to take a swamp tour or plantation tour, it’s worth comparing prices, both for the tours themselves and for the transit if you’ll need help getting to the site (most plantation and swamp tour sites are at least thirty minutes’ drive outside New Orleans).
Our post comparing swamp tours and our post comparing plantation tours can help you decide which excursion is the best for you. If you’re considering more than one of these activities, or if you’re traveling with several people, renting a car for a day can sometimes prove more affordable than taking shuttles; this also opens up choices where a shuttle isn’t available. It’s worth noting that having a car in the French Quarter is costly both in cash and time – it’s a difficult neighborhood to drive in, and parking is expensive and often hard to find – so many visitors find that confining use of a rental car to a single day of out-of-town activities is the best idea. Based on TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews, Enterprise and Budget appear to be the most reliable major rental companies with locations near the French Quarter.
Several tour providers offer package discounts and discount passes can earn you better rates on attractions all over town. Check out our post comparing the various discount passes to see which one is the best fit for you.
FREE AND AFFORDABLE ATTRACTIONS
The Louisiana State Museum has five excellent locations in the French Quarter, where base prices are low and drop still further for students, seniors, children, active military, and large groups. The Cabildo and Presbytere museums in Jackson Square both offer large exhibits on local history and culture for no more than $6 per person; the 1850 House Museum allows a self-guided tour of a 19th century residence for $3 per adult, and the Old US Mint Museum charges no admission for their exhibits on local music and art, or for their concerts.
New Orleans is famous for its above-ground cemeteries, and while the most renowned, St. Louis Cemetery #1 just outside the French Quarter, is not open to the public except on a guided tour, most others can be visited for free, including Lafayette Cemetery #1 in the Garden District. Our self-guided tour of the Garden District can help you make the most of your time exploring this cemetery and the surrounding neighborhood.
Also in the French Quarter, the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum reproduces a 19th century medical establishment, which you can attend with or without a tour for $5 per person for one of the scariest experiences available in the neighborhood. A block away, the Historic New Orleans Collection offers a free museum of local history, including a permanent collection and special exhibits that change every few months.
** For more ideas, see our post on Things to do for free in New Orleans **
For most people, walking is the best way to get around in the French Quarter area. The streets are narrow, mostly one-way, and often closed to cars. But for getting outside the French Quarter, or for visitors not used to lots of walking or with limited mobility, other choices are available.
Public transit in New Orleans is fairly comprehensive with regard to the main visitor neighborhoods while also being far more affordable than in most cities. A single ride, without discount, is $1.25, and Jazzy Passes for one day, three days, or an entire month are also available. These rates and passes apply to the streetcars as well as to city buses. For more information about using streetcars in New Orleans, check out our post Getting Around New Orleans by Street Car.
During the busy seasons (fall and spring), streetcars can get crowded, and the weather is the best of the year, so these can be ideal times for renting a bike. At least one bike shop is available in most major visitor neighborhoods, and some B&Bs or Airbnb lodgings may offer access to a bike as part of their room rental. See our article New Orleans Bike Rentals.
Hotels in the French Quarter and the adjacent business district can run several hundred dollars per night during the busy season (fall and spring). However, better prices can often be found during the quiet seasons – summer and January – when demand is lower. Further-flung hotels, such as those on St. Charles Avenue in uptown New Orleans, are rarer but often more affordable, while still being convenient to interesting sites like Magazine Street and the Garden District and to transit like the St. Charles Streetcar. For more insight on hotels and hostels, check out our post comparing lodging options across the city.
Most neighborhoods in New Orleans, besides the French Quarter and the Business District, are primarily residential, making hostels, bed and breakfasts, and short-term home rentals much more common in those areas. As of 2016, short-term rentals like Airbnb or VRBO are now illegal in the French Quarter, so to be sure your rental is on the right side of the law, it’s worth double-checking its location. Many short-term rental listings will use neighborhood names like “French Quarter” or “Garden District” without actually being located in those neighborhoods – another reason to map the address and make sure it’s near the attractions you’re interested in. For proximity to the French Quarter, a rental in the Marigny or on Esplanade Avenue is a good idea. Some have the added benefit of offering a bike for use while you’re in town, making location less of a concern. In high-demand seasons, such as during Jazz Fest or around Mardi Gras, even these smaller lodgings are often booked many months in advance, so planning can pay off enormously.
Food is one of the most in-demand and costly attractions in New Orleans. Many of the best and most renowned restaurants are located in the French Quarter and the neighboring Business/Warehouse District, and in these areas, high prices are the norm. Happy hours are a saving grace, especially in the Business District, where there are plenty of choices any weekday afternoon. Happy hours are fewer in the French Quarter, but besides the standard afternoon time, some places offer a late-night happy hour. Options are ever-changing, so a survey of recently published articles around the time of your trip will provide the most up-to-date list.
Lunch specials, especially on Fridays, can bring many fine dining establishments within reach in these same neighborhoods. And depending on the timing of your trip, you may be able to take advantage of citywide bargains on prix-fixe multi-course menus through Coolinary New Orleans (the entire month of August), NOLA Restaurant Week (mid-September), or Reveillon menus (all December, in tribute to the traditional Creole Christmas Eve meal).
If the thrill of carrying a drink in the street is part of the fun for you, then bear in mind you don’t have to go to a bar on the main drag to get a to-go drink – or to a bar at all. Bars on Bourbon Street charge high prices for the convenience of the location, but a mere block away on Dauphine Street, or on the lower end of Bourbon between St. Ann and St. Philip Streets, are bars patronized mostly by locals, where the same to-go drink will cost less, although it may not come in a grenade-shaped container. (Bear in mind most bars will not let you carry a to-go drink into their building – so once you’ve got one, you’re either in the bar where you bought it or else in the street until it’s done.)
Furthermore, while glass or metal containers are illegal in the outdoors in the French Quarter, this restriction does not apply in other neighborhoods unless a parade is taking place. So if you’re walking down Magazine Street, or through the Marigny, or visiting a park, you can pay a visit to a grocery store beforehand, get a six-pack (or more), and carry your own supply. New Orleans has several craft breweries whose products you can usually find in grocery stores, such as Rouse’s, in the French Quarter right by Jackson Square. It’s worth taking into account that drinking on public transit is prohibited and that the liberty to drink outdoors at all ends at the parish line (parishes are Louisiana’s version of counties) – so check that you haven’t left Orleans Parish before you crack open a beer.
You might enjoy taking a self-guided tour of the best watering holes in town – so check out New Orleans Cocktail Tour.
Music is one of the main reasons for a visit to New Orleans, and while plenty of it happens in upscale clubs or bars with a cover, the French Quarter is famous for great street music. Any day of the week, but especially Thursday through Sunday, music in many styles can be found outdoors on Royal Street, Bourbon Street and Frenchmen Street.
It’s worth thinking of street music as a low-cost option for entertainment rather than a completely free one. The city does not license, audition, or compensate street performers – they live entirely on what appreciative listeners give them. It’s a great system that allows musicians to make a living at what they love. And playing on the street doesn’t represent an echelon beneath playing indoor venues – plenty of bands perform in both settings, and many respected street musicians are eagerly sought out for weddings, fundraisers and parties. (For information on venues that might be a budget-buster but worth it, take a look at our post Frenchmen Street New Orleans: 12 Awesome Places to Hear Live Music).
Royal Street in the French Quarter is the biggest destination for street music. Several blocks of the street close off to vehicle traffic, forming a pedestrian mall, from 11 am-7 pm Saturday and Sunday and 11 am-4 pm every other day of the week. The street is full of art galleries, antique shops, boutiques, cafes and restaurants to complement the music. In particular, listen for Tanya and Dorise, a violin/guitar duo who tend to play at Royal and St. Louis, and for Doreen Ketchens, who plays clarinet and sings jazz standards with her band at Royal and St. Peter.
Options outside Royal Street are more variable but still plentiful. Jackson Square, a block from Royal Street, hosts musicians, acrobats, and magicians from early morning until the crowds disperse, often late at night. Brass bands play nights on Frenchmen Street and in the first few blocks of Bourbon Street. Acrobats, dancers, and costumed characters (think PG-13 more than Disney) are also plentiful on Bourbon during the daytime through the early evening.
To get yourself in the mood for New Orleans music, it’s worth tuning in to the city’s listener-supported radio station, WWOZ, which can be streamed live here. WWOZ also produces the Livewire Music Calendar, a broad listing of live music happening all over the city. If you have an Apple smartphone, their Livewire app allows you to locate music happening near you, as well as to filter the day’s shows by their genre.
If music is the main priority of your trip, but tickets to an event like the Jazz and Heritage Festival aren’t realistic, it’s worth considering the month of April, when the French Quarter Festival takes place. There’s no admission fee and stages are scattered all over the French Quarter, integrating an amped-up music experience with all of the neighborhood’s usual options for fun.
Lastly, since food is the other main reason to visit New Orleans, you can kill two birds with one stone by choosing restaurants with live music. For a reasonably priced upscale Creole option with traditional jazz, consider Palm Court Jazz Café. For a more affordable choice, you can take an outdoor table at French Market Café or Gazebo Café, both located in the historic French Market. Or, for the classic coffee and beignets, Morning Call Café in City Park often has live music during the day. Bands at restaurants typically are supported by the restaurant but accept tips, with the exception of Morning Call, where musicians will ask you to direct any extra tip your waiter instead.
Souvenir shops are one of the most common sights in the French Quarter, offering t-shirts, figurines, spices, and the like. The highest density of these are clustered on Canal Street or in the historic French Market. While prices here will tend toward the higher end, the flea market portion of the French Market will often reward a skilled haggler with much lower prices than the initial one offered. If you prefer reasonably priced art or crafts, a few options can be found in the flea market, but more of this sort of souvenir art is found in shops on lower Decatur Street near the French Market, in the Dutch Alley Artists’ Co-op, on the fence surrounding Jackson Square, or in the Frenchmen Street art market in the evenings Thursday through Monday.
Since New Orleans is a culinary city, many of our favorite souvenirs are edible (or drinkable). Souvenir shops throughout the French Quarter offer spice blends, hot sauces, local brewing or distilling, praline and turtle candy, and mixes for making beignets or gumbo. For the most part, these are items that locals buy and use regularly, and you’ll therefore find most of them at much better prices in a typical grocery store, like Rouse’s, which has locations in both the French Quarter and the Business District.